Out of the car, I make my way to the front door, but Santino grabs me and presses me against the rough stucco of the house, between two trellises tangled with rose vines.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he says.

“Jesus Christ on the One True fucking Cross. How can you miss the entire point?” I push him away, lose my footing, and grab onto a trellis of thorns. “Fuck!”

I’m bleeding.

Santino takes my palm and puts his handkerchief in it before closing my fingers into a fist. I hiss from the pain and his tenderness. They’re both unwelcome.

“Calm down,” he says.



I don’t have to dare him. His mouth presses firmly against mine, prying it open. I want to bite him, but he’s too strong and I’m too weak.

The world goes quiet for just a second. Eventually, I’ll hate myself for yielding, but not yet. The mental voice screaming for me to stop and grab Gia, run for the border grows silent the more Santino reins in his kisses from firm to soft, from commanding to offering.

My knees are weak and I’m so close to being a boat adrift. He can’t just kiss me and make this disappear. It won’t fix things. It won’t undo this obscenity of a life.

And yet, like a guy looking at a stolen artifact, I want to believe.

“This is how I make you calm down.” He leans past me and punches a code into the door’s keypad, then he pushes it open with his foot. He’s calmed me with a kiss, and now he’s going to bring a sweet, docile wife into his house.

“Fuck you.”

“That mouth.” His voice rumbles and breaks like a wave. “Why can’t you just be quiet sometimes?”

“You can’t make this go away by kissing me.”

He smirks, then steps just outside the door, holding his hand toward the entrance to our home.

I am suddenly hyper aware of every sound in the front yard. The night birds singing in the trees. Fountain water trickling into the pond. The whisper of the breeze in the leaves. It all adds up to a song of outside. Not just outdoors, but my existence outside the boundaries that have been set for me without me even knowing. My potential won’t fit inside his house. Inside, I’ll be a step closer to the captivity of his kisses, and one step further from freedom.

He waits as if he understands the importance of what I’m considering.

My thorn-bitten palm throbs when I tighten it around his handkerchief.

This story about my father is cute. The crown, the promise, the danger. It’s all a tidy dressing on a gaping wound. The missing pieces of an ancient crown are an excuse to take away what’s rightfully mine—my self-determination—not a reason.

I’m still committed to rescuing Gia and every girl like her, but once I walk through that door, I have to find a way to do it with him, or not at all.

“I know you’re still mad,” he says. “You can fight me inside, or maybe you’d like another round with the rosebushes?” He glances at my bleeding hand, then the tangle of flowers and thorns. “You’ll never change their mind though. They will always have thorns.”

He’s thinking of changing his mind? About what exactly? And is this a tease? Will he promise to help Gia, but never guarantee it?

Or does it simply mean there’s a chance?

A wave of confidence surges through my bloodstream, and I go through the doorway, into our house.

It’s us together or not at all.

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